Cardboard Tigers: Seelbach, Sharon, Slayback

Fourteenth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Chuck Seelbach
Chuck Seelbach – 1973 Topps #51
Chuck Seelbach
Chuck Seelbach – 1974 Topps #292

Chuck Seelbach was the Tigers’ closer in their 1972 American League East championship year, appearing in 61 games, finishing 34 of them and picking up 14 saves, which was 7th in the league. The role of “closer,” as we know it today, was quite different in the early seventies, and the key relief role that Seelbach filled was usually a multiple-inning job and didn’t always translate into a save opportunity. The “save” had only been an official MLB statistic since 1969, and teams had only started to play with the idea that a single pitcher might finish every close game that his team was leading as is common now.

In any case, Seelbach was effective in the late innings for the 1972 team and a big reason why they were able to win the division. He went 9-8 with a 2.89 ERA in addition to his 14 saves. He appeared in a total of one inning over two games in the American League Championship Series against Oakland, giving up four hits and two earned runs for an ERA of 18.00. 1972 was the last season without the designated hitter in the AL, so Seelbach also had 26 plate appearances in his career, hitting .143 with two doubles.

In 1973 he starting having arm problems which limited him to just 7 innings that year and 7 2/3 innings in 1974. He spent some time back in Toledo in ’73 as well. He retired at the age of 26 and went on to teach history at his alma mater, University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, for 39 years. One of his sons, Michael, has been an actor in Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including Footloose, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Reefer Madness, and Wicked.

Dick Sharon
Dick Sharon – 1974 Topps #48
Dick Sharon
Dick Sharon – 1975 Topps #293

If you had to guess where Dick Sharon grew up from either of these cards, but especially the 1975 one, you’d have to say “California,” right? The dude looks like a lost member of Fleetwood Mac. Sharon was born in San Mateo and grew up in Redwood City, which eventually became part of Silicon Valley and now is the headquarters of companies like Oracle, Electronic Arts, Evernote, Box, and Informatica. But back in the early seventies, the only worries Dick Sharon had were where to point his bat to indicate where his next hit was goin’ or showin’ off his awesome follow-through.

Unfortunately for Dick, as much as he looked the part, he had limited success when he actually got to the big leagues. Drafted by the Pirates in 1968 as a third baseman, he was traded to Detroit before the 1973 season for Jim Four and Norm McRae. He hit .242 with seven home runs in 91 games for the Tigers in 1973, then dropped to .217 with only two dingers over 60 games in 1974. He was part of the three-way trade involving Ed Brinkman and Bob Strampe that brought slugging first baseman Nate Colbert to Detroit after the 1974 season.

Sharon played 91 games for the Padres in 1975, hitting .194 with four home runs and 20 RBI. He was traded three times in the next offseason, first to the Cardinals in October; then to the Angels in January; and finally to the Red Sox in March. He spent the 1976 with Boston’s AAA farm team in Pawtucket before retiring.

The notes on baseball cards can be kind of desperate for something nice to say sometimes. Sharon’s 1974 card notes that he “has excellent baseball instincts.” Well, you’d hope so. On the 1975 card Sharon is described as “a sure-handed ballhawk, Dick improved his Batting Average (no idea why that’s capitalized) in each of his four minor league seasons.”

Sharon became a expert fly fisherman in Montana after his major league career ended, owning an equipment shop and leading trips all over the world.

Bill Slayback
Bill Slayback – 1973 Topps #537

Bill Slayback was another member of the 1972 AL East champion Tigers, starting 13 games in his rookie season and going 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA. He also finished five games, though he didn’t record a save. Slayback was drafted in the 7th round of the 1968 amateur draft out of Glendale Community College in California. He moved up the Tigers’ system with stops in Batavia, Lakeland, Rocky Mount, Montgomery, and Toledo before getting called up to the big club in June, 1972. His major league debut on June 26 against the Yankees was a masterpiece, as he threw seven innings of no-hit ball before giving up an eighth-inning single to Johnny Callison as the Tigers went on to win, 4-3.

He spent most of 1973 back in Toledo, then all of 1974 in the majors. Two more seasons (1975 and 1976) in the Tigers’ new AAA affiliate, the Evansville Triplets, finished Slayback’s professional career.

In 1973, Slayback co-wrote a song with Tigers radio play-by-play legend Ernie Harwell called “Move Over Babe (Here Comes Henry),” that got some airplay in the U.S. and Japan. Slayback performed the vocal and played most, if not all, of the instruments, was about Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

The song was mentioned in one of Aaron’s biographies, with author Tom Stanton describing Slayback as “something of a Renaissance man. He sang, played numerous instruments, painted, sketched, and made furniture.” In 2006, he released a new CD that got a positive review from then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who knew Slayback from when he was a minor league manager in the Tigers’ system in the seventies. Slayback didn’t look like he should be in Fleetwood Mac, like his teammate Dick Sharon, but he’d have been more useful holding a guitar or playing keyboards alongside Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood, and the McVies.

Bill Slayback died on March 25, 2015, in Los Angeles. He was 67 years old.

Cardboard Tigers: Ruhle, Sanders, Scherman

Thirteenth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Vern Ruhle rookie card
1975 Rookie Pitchers (Vern Ruhle) – 1975 Topps #614
Vern Ruhle
Vern Ruhle – 1976 Topps #89

Vern Ruhle was another Michigan lad who made it with his local team. He was born in Coleman, located between Midland and Clare on U.S. 10. He went to Olivet College and was drafted by the Tigers in the 17th round of the 1972 amateur draft. He progressed reasonably quickly for a pitcher, putting up especially good numbers in his second year in the minors, 1973, which he split between Lakeland (A) and Montgomery (AA), going 12-7 with a 2.44 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 177 innings. He started 1974 in Montgomery, winning all five of his starts and posting a 0.60 ERA, which got him a promotion to Evansville (AAA), where he went 13-5 with a 4.04 ERA, which got him a call-up to the big club when rosters expanded in September. He started three games for the Tigers and won two of them with a promising 2.73 ERA.

In 1975 (the year of this shared rookie card), Ruhle was a regular member of the Tigers’ rotation, going 11-12 with a 4.03 ERA for a team that put up the fifth worst record in franchise history, 57-102. 1976 was solid for Ruhle, but in 1977 he struggled and was eventually sent down to Evansville. Detroit released him at the end of spring training in 1978 but the Astros signed him the next day.

He spent the next seven seasons in Houston, primarily as a starter initially but eventually making most of his appearances out of the bullpen. He pitched in three League Championship Series: He started Game Four in the 1980 NLCS against the Phillies, leaving in the 8th inning ahead 2-1, but Philadelphia came back to win in extra innings and won the series the next day. In 1981, he also started Game Four, this time against the Dodgers, losing a pitching duel against Fernando Valenzuela, 2-1. The Astros again lost Game Five the next day.

He signed with the Indians as a free agent in 1985, then joined the Angels in 1986, where he made his last postseason appearance in relief – and also in Game Four – giving up two runs over 2/3 of an inning; in this case, however, the Angels were the team that came back to win in extra innings.

After his career ended, Ruhle was a pitching coach for the Astros, Phillies, Mets, and Reds. He died in Houston in 2007 after battling multiple myeloma. He was 55 years old.

The other guys on Ruhle’s rookie card:

  • Jack Kucek was drafted by the White Sox in 1974, pitched parts of six seasons with them before spending parts of two more seasons with the Phillies and Blue Jays. 7-16, 5.12 ERA in 205 2/3 innings over 59 games.
  • Dyar Miller was undrafted and signed with the Phillies in 1968 as a catcher. After four minor league games in which he committed two errors, he was released. He then turned to pitching and was able to get the Orioles to give him a shot. Pitching was more successful for him and he finally made it to the major leagues in 1975 as a reliever. He also played for the Angels, Blue Jays, and Mets. 23-17, 3.23 ERA in 465 1/3 innings over 251 games.
  • Paul Siebert had a five year major league career with Houston, San Diego, and the New York Mets. 3-8, 3.77 ERA in 129 innings over 87 games. His father was Dick Siebert, a first baseman mostly for the Philadelphia Athletics in the thirties and forties.
Reggie Sanders rookie card
1975 Rookie Infielders (Reggie Sanders) – 1975 Topps #617

Reggie Sanders was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the second round of the 1968 January Draft from Venice High School in Los Angeles. He made his minor league debut that year with Burlington (A) in the Midwest League, hitting .264 and showing his power potential by hitting 22 homers. He spent 1969 to 1972 in the Oakland system, hitting in the .230s and watching his HR numbers drop, which made it difficult to crack a talented A’s lineup that already had plenty of first basemen.

Traded to Detroit in May 1972 for pitcher Mike Kilkenny, Sanders spent the rest of 1972 and all of 1973 in AAA with Toledo and Evansville before finally making it to the bigs in 1974 as a September call-up. He hit .273 in 99 at-bats with seven doubles and three home runs, playing both first base and designated hitter. He did hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, off Oakland’s Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

The Tigers traded him to Atlanta at the end of spring training in 1975 for Jack Pierce. Sanders spent two more seasons in the minors with the Braves’ AAA team in Richmond, then played for Durango in the Mexican League in 1977 and 1978. He finished his career in the White Sox and Orioles systems before one more season in Mexico with Tampico and Aguascalientes in 1979.

Reggie Sanders died in January 2002 in Los Angeles. He was 52.

The other guys on Sanders’ shared rookie card were more successful at the major league level:

  • Mike Cubbage was from a baseball family; his cousins Larry and Chris Haney also played in the majors. He played baseball and football at the University of Virginia. Selected by the Senators in 1968 but didn’t sign, then was selected by them again in 1971 before they moved to Texas to become the Rangers. Major league debut in 1974 with the Rangers but didn’t get his first major league hit until June 20, 1975, when he went 3 for 5 against the Angels. Traded to Minnesota in 1976, hit for the cycle on July 27, 1978. Mostly a utility player, though he was mostly a shortstop in high school, he never played that position in the majors. .258 average with 34 home runs and 251 RBI in 1951 at-bats. Cubbage was a minor league manager and major league coach for many years after his retirement, including a short stint as the interim manager of the Mets in 1991 after Bud Harrelson was fired. He went 3-4 as a big league manager.
  • Doug DeCinces was a third baseman for the Orioles from 1973 to 1981, the Angels from 1982 to 1987, the Cardinals briefly in 1987, and played one season in Japan with the Yakult Swallows in 1988. He had a lifetime average of .259 with 237 home runs. He won a Silver Slugger as the best hitter at his position in 1982 and made the 1983 American League All-Star Team. He hit three home runs in a game twice in a five-day span in August 1982 with the Angels. He was convicted of 13 felony counts related to insider trading in 2017 and sentenced to eight months of home detention and a $10,000 fine in 2019.
  • Manny Trillo played for seven major league teams in his 17 year career: the A’s, Cubs (twice), Phillies, Indians, Expos, Giants, and Reds. I recall him being a bigger part of the 1973 and 1974 A’s teams that won their second and third World Series of the decade, but actually he only appeared in 17 games for them in ’73 and 21 games in ’74. My recollection is probably based on my lifelong fascination with utility players. In any case, he still was considered a rookie in 1975 after being traded to the Cubs, explaining his appearance on the card shown above. He finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, hitting .248 with 7 homers and 70 RBI and playing 154 games, mostly at second base but with a few appearances at shortstop. He was an All-Star four times: 1977 with Chicago, 1981 and 1982 with the Phillies, and 1983 with the Indians. He won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. He was one of the best-fielding second basemen of his era and had a strong arm. Lifetime average of .263 with 61 home runs and 571 RBI in 1780 career games.
Fred Scherman
Fred Scherman – 1972 Topps #6
Fred Scherman
Fred Scherman – 1973 Topps #660
Fred Scherman
Fred Scherman – 1974 Topps #186

Fred Scherman was a damn good relief pitcher for the Tigers from 1969 to 1973, compiling a 25-15 record with a 3.39 ERA in 212 appearances, all but four in relief. He also had 39 saves for Detroit over that period. Even among older Tigers fans, his name doesn’t come up much, but I’d be happy to see the current team add someone like Scherman to the bullpen.

Scherman was born in Dayton, Ohio, and was signed by the Twins in 1963, and he made his professional debut with Minnesota’s single-A Florida State League team in Orlando that year, mostly as a starter. Traded to Detroit before the 1964 season, he moved his way up through the system over the next five years, just missing out on the 1968 World Series championship as he spent that entire season in Toledo. In the minors, he’d been both a starter and reliever, but when he finally made it to the big club in 1969, it was as a relief pitcher, and he barely got to play. Manager Mayo Smith didn’t appear to want him on the roster; at one point, Scherman sat on the bench for 50 straight days without entering a game. He only pitched four innings in Detroit that season.

He overcame physical problems as a child that required him to wear a metal brace on his left leg. By the time he had the brace removed at age nine, he could barely run but his arms were very strong and he began dominating the Dayton Little League. He was undrafted out of high school and played amateur ball in Dayton for the Wiedemann-Budweiser team, posting a 1.38 ERA with 108 strikeouts in 99 innings, which got the attention of a scout from the Twins.

Scherman was part of the minor brawl that marred Game Two of the 1972 American League Championship Series, which I’ve previously described in this post. Earlier in the game, Scherman had knocked down A’s slugger Reggie Jackson twice on inside pitches, which set up Bert Campaneris’s reaction when Lerrin LaGrow later hit him in the foot with a pitch.

He was chosen as “King Tiger” by the fans in both 1971 and 1972, but by 1973 the emergence of John Hiller as the Tigers’ closer – a relatively new concept in baseball – left mostly mop-up work for Scherman, so the team traded him to Houston after the 1973 season for pitcher Jim Ray and infielder Gary Sutherland. He began to have back issues that eventually resulted in surgery and he was never quite the same pitcher. He was traded to Montréal in June 1975, and they initially tried him as a starter. He played his last game in July 1976; after that game he was asked to report to Denver, the Expos’ AAA farm team, and Scherman refused the assignment, so the team released him. He tried a comeback in 1977 with the Pirates, but despite pitching well in spring training, he was behind Goose Gossage and Terry Forster on the Pittsburgh depth chart, so he was sent to Columbus (AAA), where he was an insurance policy for possible injuries that never happened.

In 1978, Scherman moved his family to Hiroshima, Japan, where he’d been offered a contract with the Carp. It turned out they had too many foreign players and he spent the season in the Japanese minor leagues as a player-coach.

The back of Fred’s 1974 card notes that “Fred likes to tinker with stereo equipment.” Here’s hoping he’s still enjoying the hi-fi sound as he approaches his 78th birthday this summer. Here’s a 2018 interview with him:

Another 365 days

Today is my pandemic anniversary.

One year ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, the word went out from the administration at the community college that everyone should go home. The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, but there hadn’t been any cases in St. Clair County yet. The local health department started to get reports of positive cases on Monday the 16th, and the next day that news filtered out to businesses and organizations. It was time to err on the side of caution and start figuring out how to work from home.

My son, who also works at the college, and I drove home just after lunchtime. We hadn’t eaten yet, so we stopped at Burger King in St. Clair. I had a Whopper with cheese, some fries, and a large Diet Coke. It was the last restaurant food I’ve eaten since then, which means another 365 day streak as of today.

I don’t think most of us thought we’d be gone for very long. Many people were talking about a couple of weeks, maybe a month, and I recall agreeing with that, not so much because I had any real insight into what might happen, but probably because there was nothing in my lifetime to compare it to. The idea that one year later I’d still be working from home almost completely (I can go into the office, but nobody’s there so it’s just as effective to do the fifteen-foot commute to my home office) was ludicrous. It still is.

Fortunately, things appear to be getting better, and rather quickly. I was able to get my first COVID vaccine this afternoon (I’ll return next month for the second shot). The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine I received has a efficacy rate of over 90 percent, but more importantly, even if I contract COVID after having both shots, my chance of serious illness from the virus will drop to nearly zero. So it appear that COVID will become no more dangerous to me than a cold or a mild case of the flu.

Then it’ll be time to stop by Burger King again!

Cardboard Tigers: Ray, Roberts, Rodriguez

Twelfth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Jim Ray
Jim Ray 1974 Topps #458T
Jim Ray
Jim Ray 1975 Topps #89

Jim Ray spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues as a pretty dependable relief pitcher. He depended mostly on the hard stuff, earning the nickname “Ray Gun” from striking out batters with a laser-like fastball. He pitched most of his career for the Astros, breaking in with them with brief appearances in 1965 and 1966 before sticking for good in 1968. He was traded to the Tigers in December 1973 along with infielder Gary Sutherland for relief pitcher Fred Scherman and some cash. Because of the lead time Topps needed to produce their cards each year, Ray had a 1974 card showing him with the Astros, and this “TRADED” card was released later showing him with Detroit. Most players would have a headshot like this one taken by the card company’s photographer so their new team’s logo and colors could be airbrushed onto the photo if he was traded. In this case, Ray’s headshot was cleverly shot from below so only a little bit of navy blue needed to be done to obscure the Astros’ red cap color, along with modifying the piping on the jersey to a pattern that, while a more appropriate color, wasn’t part of the Tigers’ jersey. Oh well.

Ray only pitched one season in Detroit, going 1-3 with a 4.47 ERA in 28 relief appearances and two saves. For his career, he was 43-30 with a 3.61 ERA and 25 saves. He was sent to the Pirates in a conditional deal after the 1974 season but never played for Pittsburgh; he ended up in Denver, playing AAA ball for the White Sox that year, so despite his 1975 Topps Tigers card, he didn’t pitch for them – or anywhere in the majors – that season. The Astros brought him back on a minor league contract in 1976 and he pitched for their AA affiliate in Columbus, Georgia, making eight appearances including three starts and compiling a 1-1 record with an 11.77 ERA.

Ray was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but went to high school in Holly, Michigan, in northern Oakland County outside of Detroit. He died in Margate, Florida, in 2005 at the age of 60.

Leon Roberts
Leon Roberts 1976 Topps #292

Imagine wanting to be a major league ballplayer. Lots of us have had that fantasy, but precious few of us have anything close to the ability – or the desire to put in the work needed – to make it to the show.

Now imagine having the ability – and the desire – but not having two good eyes. Imagine having damaged your right eye one day as a kid when you were goofing around with a jackknife. Imagine never telling any of your coaches or managers and somehow keeping the fact that you couldn’t really see very well out of that eye. Imagine somehow still being able to track a fastball and a high fly ball well enough to stick around in the major leagues for eleven seasons as an outfielder.

Yeah, I can’t imagine it either. But Leon Roberts did it.

Roberts was a big 6’3″ kid from Vicksburg, Michigan, who was recruited by Bo Schembechler to play football at the University of Michigan. He played baseball and basketball for the Wolverines instead and was drafted by the Tigers, where in 1975 he became the guy who replaced Al Kaline in right field after Mr. Tiger retired at the end of the 1974 season. He did well enough, especially considering how second-rate the Tigers were in the mid-seventies, hitting .257 with 10 home runs and 38 RBI.

The Tigers traded him to Houston after the 1975 season (those two teams did a lot of trading in that period, see Jim Ray above) along with catcher Terry Humphrey and pitchers Mark Lemongello and Gene Pentz for catcher Milt May and pitchers Dave Roberts and Jim “Catfish” Crawford in a trade that did absolutely nothing for either team except shuffle the rosters around a bit. He played parts of the next two seasons with the Astros before being traded to Seattle in 1978 where he had his best season, hitting .301, popping 22 homers and knocking in 92 runs. He was 33rd in the voting for American League MVP, which may not seem like much, but how many times have you appeared on the MVP voting list? Huh?

Roberts also played for the Rangers, Blue Jays, and Royals before retiring after one more minor league season in 1985 with the Tigers’ AAA team in Nashville.

After his career ended, Roberts finally revealed the story about his right eye and his poor eyesight. He explained that when teams would do their annual physicals for players, he’d listen to the guy before him in line, memorize the order of the letters, and recite them back when it was his turn. “No one ever figured it out. I would always force myself to really concentrate on reading the ball and tracking the ball,” he explained in a 2015 interview with Dan Holmes.

Roberts managed and coached in the minor leagues for many years, including helming three teams in the Tigers’ system from 1986 to 1988 (AAA Nashville, AAA Toledo, and A Fayetteville), and again for three seasons in the Braves’ system from 1992 to 1994 (Advanced A Durham and A Macon). As recently as 2018, Roberts was still the hitting coach for the Royals’ AA team in Northwest Arkansas at the age of 68.

Aurelio Rodriguez
Aurelio Rodriguez 1974 Topps #72
Aurelio Rodriguez
Aurelio Rodriguez 1975 Topps #221
Aurelio Rodriguez
Aurelio Rodriguez 1976 Topps #267

Aurelio Rodriguez was my mom’s favorite baseball player. This wasn’t too unusual, because Aurelio was a fan favorite in Detroit, always smiling and popular with his teammates as well. But while my mom liked baseball, she wasn’t really a follower of any particular player – except Aurelio.

In 1974, I had several of Rodriguez’s cards shown above, with him ranging to the left to pick up a ground ball. Mom swiped one of them and kept it in her purse, and when she died two years ago, I found it in a collection of personal items, somewhat worn by time but still legible.

Rodriguez was one of the best players ever to come out of the Mexican League. He’s not well-remembered today, even by Tigers fans, but he had all the tools. He was an above-average hitter and one of the best fielders at the hot corner in Detroit history. But it was his arm that I really remember. Aurelio would pick off grounders that were just fair, ending up several feet in foul territory, yet still throw the runner out on a line with his cannon. The only other third baseman I saw that consistently could do that was the Orioles’ legendary Brooks Robinson, whose hold on the Gold Glove Award Aurelio finally ended in 1976.

Rodriguez started his career in the Mexican League with Jalisco and Fresnillo in 1965 when he was only 17 years old. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year, then signed with the California Angels where he spent the next two seasons mostly at the AAA level in the Pacific Coast League. In 1969 he made it to the show for good with the Angels, but shortly after the 1970 season started, he was traded to the Washington Senators, where he only spent one season.

After the 1970 season, Rodriguez was traded to Detroit along with shortstop Ed Brinkman and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan for infielder Don Wert, outfielder Elliott Maddox, and pitchers Norm McRae and Denny McLain. Tigers general manager Jim Campbell had had enough of McLain’s antics and personal problems and was willing to ship him off for practically anything, but instead fleeced the Senators by getting a solid starting pitcher in Coleman and the left side of his infield in Rodriguez and Brinkman. None of the players the Tigers gave up did anything for Washington or the Texas Rangers, which the club became starting with the 1971 season.

Rodriguez played for nine seasons in Detroit, hitting .239 with 85 homers and 423 RBI for a total offensive WAR of 4.5, but a defensive WAR of 8.6. Not stellar numbers, but considering the mediocrity of the Tigers during those years, he was definitely a bright spot. As I mentioned, the highlight of his career was probably winning the Gold Glove at third base in the 1976 season, which was also the Year of the Bird (Mark Fidrych) and the breakout season for Ron LeFlore.

The Tigers sold Rodriguez’s contract to the Padres after the 1979 season for $200,000. He also played for the Yankees (nothing was weirder to 17-year-old me than seeing Aurelio wearing pinstripes), White Sox, Orioles, and White Sox again briefly in 1983. He finished his career with two more years in Mexico with Los Tigers Capitalinos in 1984 and as a player-manager for Los Sultanes de Monterrey in 1985. He was a successful manager in he Mexican League from 1990 to 1999 with Monterrey, Saltillo, Reynosa, and Monclova, and managed the Tigers’ low-A team in Niagara Falls in 1990.

Aurelio Rodriguez died in 2000 on a visit back to Detroit. Leaving the El Rancho restaurant in the Mexicantown neighborhood in southwest Detroit, he was hit by a car that jumped the curb. He was 52 years old.

It was 20 years ago today

and it wasn’t Sgt. Pepper teaching the band to play, but Prof. Harold Hill.

Sometime during the week before February 27, 2001, I was leafing through the Port Huron Times Herald and saw that a local community theater group was going to hold auditions for The Music Man, one of my favorite musicals.

I did a little bit of theater in high school, then took a few classes in college as I considered possibly majoring in theater at Central Michigan University. I worked on set construction for one production and helped with the front of house (tickets, ushering, etc.) for another before moving on to my next possible major (I signed up for seven majors, which is a story of its own, I suppose).

So I hadn’t really acted on stage ever. I thought it would be fun to just be in the chorus, or maybe part of the barbershop quartet. I figured if you were going to do a play, you probably already had people in mind for the major parts. That turned out to be both true (directors almost always have some idea who they’d like to cast, assuming they come out to audition) and false (sometimes the preconceived actors don’t show or, even better, someone else does who changes the director’s mind).

I had mentioned auditioning for shows before, several times, in fact. My wife, Doreen, had had enough. “If you don’t audition for The Music Man,” she said, “I don’t want to ever hear you say you ‘oughta’ audition for another show, ever.” The gauntlet had been laid down. It was time to put up or shut up.

Even then, I enlisted my 11-year-old daughter, Erin, to come along with me. Sort of a human shield, I guess. Maybe if they liked the cute kid they’d put her old man in the show, too. She was a good sport and agreed to audition with me.

We did the typical community theater audition things: a little reading, a little dancing, and a lot of singing. The director, Sue Daniels, had years of experience directing musicals and swiftly moved everyone through the paces. Not knowing what to expect, I was pretty impressed with how she handled everyone. There was no awkwardness for being “new,” and Erin and I were greeted warmly by everyone. It was fun.

I noticed after about an hour that there weren’t any men who would of a typical age for Harold Hill. I was 38 at the time and wondered if I was too old to play the part, but every other guy there was either a teenager or at least 15 years older than me. I began to let myself think I might have a shot at the lead, but again reminded myself that surely they had someone in mind and perhaps he’d been at the auditions on the previous night.

When we got to the singing part of the auditions, I thought I did pretty well. I knew the music already so I was confident. “Ya Got Trouble” is a tough piece and we didn’t sing much of it, but I felt good about how I did. We also did Harold’s reprise of “Til There Was You,” which gave me a chance to show my full range.

Erin and I went home and we both thought we’d done well enough to be cast in the chorus and even discussed how much fun it would be to get to do that together. I got home at about 9 p.m. and was reading a book in my home office when the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.

“Can I speak to Tom Kephart,” the caller replied. “This is Russell Kaleikilo, president of the St. Clair Theatre Guild.”

“This is Tom,” I answered.

“Ah, Tom, good,” Russell went on. He’d been one of the members of the audition panel. “We enjoyed your work tonight and wondered if you’d be interested in playing Professor Harold Hill.”

I dropped the telephone.

Picking it up and doing the classic tangled-cord-trying-to-talk-in-the-wrong-end routine, I finally got it straightened out and apologized to Russell for dropping him on the floor.

“Yes, I’d love to,” I said.

Russell laughed and told me when the read-through would be. Then he asked if Erin was available. She had come into the office so I handed the phone to her. Russell asked if she’d like to be a “Town Kid” in the show, and she also answered yes.

And that’s how I ended up playing Prof. Harold Hill in the first show I ever auditioned for. It was a life-changing moment, one I’ve relived over and over because it set the stage (pun intended) for the best twenty years of my life. That opportunity led to 57 more shows since The Music Man, both as an actor and as a director. My experience allowed me to teach acting and improvisation at a community college for eight years and direct four shows a year there. I met almost all of my close friends through theater. It gave me a purpose I didn’t really have before.

And it all started twenty years ago tonight. Thanks to Sue Daniels, Jean Bastian, the late Russell Kaleikilo, and the entire cast and crew of SCTG’s 2001 production of The Music Man for believing in me that night in February.